Ellen Carey Is Pushing the Limits of Photography With Mysterious Abstractions That Look Like Paintings

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Ellen Carey spent the summer of 1988 in her darkroom attempting to answer a question that had been bugging her: “What is an abstract photograph?” Her experiments kept failing—she processed black and white 120 film with different scrims and lighting, made black and white photograms, and airbrushed and painted chemicals on various papers.

Then, one day, she developed a photo with nothing in it. “It just takes one picture when you’re struggling,” Carey says. It was a gradient, going from white on the left to black on the right. The work is essentially a picture of a whiteboard, though it doesn’t necessarily appear that way. “It was all about light,” she said.

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Ever since then, Carey has focused on and pushing the limits of what could be done with photographic equipment and materials. This ongoing project continues in her latest body of work, a series of photographs that the artist has called “finitograms.” Debuting at a solo exhibition at Paris’s Galerie Miranda (on view through June 22), the series’ name is a reference to the non finito technique used by Donatello and Michelangelo, who, in certain cases, deliberately didn’t carve the whole of the marble blocks they used.

Carey’s images, however, are completely finished, as they are 8×10 photographic papers with chemical traces on them—from Carey’s students’ experiments to the marks left from their being thrown in the bin. “The idea here is the light and the chemistry without the interference of the human hand,” she says. Over the last 20 years or so, Carey has been collecting and storing them — “time is the camera operator,” she says.

According to Galerie Miranda director Miranda Salt, Carey’s work very much blurs genre lines.

“It’s super fine-art photography with a strong connection to the painting world,” Salt said. In her estimation, French institutions have long been focused on figurative photography, and therefore they lag the U.S. by around five years. This is why they are just catching onto Carey’s work, she posited.

Portrait of an elegant woman near a large camera that is the size of her body. She holds a hand to one of her ears.

Ellen Carey. ©Douglas Levere

Carey’s most well-known series is grouping of large-format works run as large as an adult human and consist of bright blobs of color and cracked patinas. They were made using 20×24 Polaroid cameras, which weigh 235 pounds and require their own wheeled frames. They are so big that two people are needed to move—and, often, to operate—them.

Carey uses the camera to take a photo, then brings the film into a darkroom with absolutely no light (she used a closet during lockdown). There, she crumples the paper, with its negative attached, by hand, before away to reveal the finished work. She sometimes includes the negative as part of the work too.

This body relates to Carey’s obsession with Surrealism. Decades of playing around in a darkroom gave her the confidence to actively damage the film, breaking a large photography taboo.

Carey has one of seven 20×24 Polaroid cameras in existence (a new one is being built currently) in her Hartford, Connecticut, studio, which was used by photographer Elsa Dorfman until her death two years ago. When the Polaroid company announced it was no longer going to make the film any more, 20×24 Holdings, which helps manage some of these cameras, bought over 500 cases of film. However, as no funder has been found yet, Carey estimates there is only enough film for a few more years. Though Carey is undoubtedly the only one working in this abstract way with this camera, there is a possibility she may also be the last.

While Carey has continued extending the field of abstract photography for the last three decades, creating entirely new genres, she has not gained the same level of recognition as some of her contemporaries. For instance, she was friends with Cindy Sherman back when they were at college at Buffalo, New York, and had a shared exhibition back in 1976 on a Buffalo city bus.

Carey first encountered the 20×24 Polaroid camera in 1983, when she was invited to be part of the Polaroid Artists Support Program—which ended with the great stock market crash of 1987.

Photograph resembling an abstract spray of black paint.

A new work from Ellen Carey’s 2022 “finitograms” series. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Miranda, Paris

“The camera made me rethink my modus operandi,” she said, explaining that she knew she wasn’t very good at painting, drawing, or other figurative ways of making art. This can be seen in Carey’s “zerograms,” for which she folds and crumples Fuji Crystal paper (a similar process to the “Crush & Pulls”), then manipulated in a lightless darkroom and exposed into melanges of bright colors.

These patterns were spotted by the creative design team behind the menswear brand Dunhill, which collaborated with her on some pieces of the spring-summer 2022 collection. Dunhill creative director Mark Weston said Carey’s work has the “importance of trusting instinct while embracing the accidentals” that resonated with the design team, describing how the “painterly colors” lent themselves well to being printed on silk satin.

Carey thinks of her practice in a similar way. She said her work is about “introducing randomness and chance,” sometimes with the intervention of the human hand, sometimes without.

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